By Errol Castens
OXFORD – Volunteers, officials and community members will celebrate one of Oxford’s most historic church structures Saturday when they dedicate the Burns Belfry as a museum of black history and culture.
The structure was built in 1910 as a home for Burns Methodist Episcopal Church, the town’s oldest black congregation, replacing their original 1869 building. After the church moved to a new building in 1974, the brick building was converted to office space, and when author John Grisham moved to Virginia, he donated the historic structure to the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation to oversee restoration along with the Oxford Development Association, an African-American cultural group.
The work has taken “11 years, four phases and $1.2 million representing 275 grants and individual donations,” said Jim Pryor, one of the most persistent and patient champions of the project.
Its earliest manifestations involved stabilizing the building, including reinforcing the walls and towers and rebuilding the roof. Later work involved interior restoration and modifications.
In addition to being able to host up to 200 people in auditorium-style seating and 100 or so for banquet-style events, the former sanctuary will feature perimeter interpretations of the African-American experience.
Malone/Design/Fabrication of Atlanta created the museum fixtures, the first phase of which includes permanent displays of photos and text interpreting black history. It also includes an 11-minute video of recollections by past and present Burns Church members.
Future exhibits will convert thousands of photos, papers and other artifacts to digital images.
“Right now there are four Ph.D. history students working on the respective themes of enslavement, emancipation, Jim Crow and civil rights,” said Darlene Copp, another of the project’s sparkplugs.
“We hope to use lots of examples that are particular to Oxford and Lafayette County.”
Copp said changing exhibits would include topics specific to the area’s African-American, Chickasaw and early settler culture as well.
Saturday’s outdoor dedication is set for 5 p.m. and will include choral music, remarks and a ribbon-cutting, followed by tours of the building and exhibits, and refreshments. (In case of inclement weather, the ceremony will be moved to Second Baptist Church, followed by Burns Belfry tours.)
“I’m proud of the building. I’m proud of the history the building portrays,” said Oxford Alderman Preston Taylor, another of the project’s longtime supporters. “The Burns Belfry Museum and Multicultural will encourage the community to appreciate its African-American history. I’m into education, so I can see children from Oxford and Lafayette County and counties all around us coming here to learn.”
In honor of the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, three related programs are scheduled for upcoming Wednesdays at 6 p.m.:
• Sept. 25, University of Mississippi history professor Deirdre Cooper Owens will present “Slavery in Mississippi.”
• Oct. 2, Hollis Crowder, director of Project Africa, will present “Slave Trade in Ghana: Elmina Castle.”
• Oct. 9, Rust College English professors Alisea McLeod and Sharron Sarthou will present “Tracking Acts of Self-Emancipation.”
For more information or to donate toward future exhibits, visit www.burns-belfry.com.